1943–1945: The German Medical Profession’s Role in the Atrocities; Dwarfs who Survived Auschwitz

Physicians were not pawns of the Nazi regime; they legitimized mass murder.
In contradiction to the myth perpetuated by both the German and American medical establishments;  the vast majority of physicians and biological scientists lent their support to Racial Hygiene laws. They provided the “scientific” ideological justification for exterminating carriers of “hereditary defects” and genetically “inferior” races; they oversaw the selection of victims for “eugenicide” whose “lives” they deemed “not worth living”. They were not coerced to behave as they did; they volunteered and enthusiastically exploited the opportunity of conducting cutting-edge physiological experiments of their own design, on individuals whom they selected, within the context of mass murder in hospital killing centers and in concentration camps. They provided the technology for carrying out “scientifically tested” biomedical genocide; and they plundered the dead for body specimens for further research. (Weindling, 2004)

The participating physicians were the elite in their profession; they held leadership positions at renowned academic research institutions; they provided their professional expertise for the commission of medical murder on an unprecedented, colossal scale. (Human Subjects Research After the Holocaust, ed. By Sheldon Rubenfeld and Susan Benedict, 2014) They fled when the Allied forces approached, but most returned to practice medicine until their retirement.  (Adam. 2007)

Irmfried Eberl MD, a psychiatrist, joined the Nazi Party in 1931. In 1940 he became medical director of the killing ward at Brandenburg where the first gas chamber was designed and deployed. He was responsible for the extermination of 10,000 disabled Germans. He was then transferred to the Bernburg, another Euthanasia Center, where he killed another 10,000.
When T-4 “euthanasia” was officially terminated, physicians and nurses were transferred to the larger extermination camps. In 1942, Eberl was given command of Treblinka where he murdered 250,000 Warsaw Jews, but was fired for being a poor manager who overestimated the speed at which the killing process could be accomplished, resulting in the pile-up of thousands of dead bodies. According to SS-Unterscharführer Hans Hingst:

Dr. Eberl’s ambition was to reach the highest possible numbers and exceed all the other camps. So many transports arrived that the disembarkation and gassing of the people could no longer be handled.”

Psychiatrists such as Eberl were at the center of every stage of justifying, planning and carrying out the mass murder of those with mental disorders, and constituted the connection to the later annihilation of Jews and other “undesirables” in the Holocaust.

Doctors in general and psychiatrists in particular who were involved in the euthanasia program were not morally blind or devoid of the power of moral reflection. This belief would render the guilty parties not responsible for their actions…psychiatrists cooperated fully. They even took enthusiastic initiative in the process…” (Strous Psychiatry During the Nazi Era, 2007)

Prof. Dr. Hermann Voss, dean of the medical faculty at University of Pozen, used executed prisoners’ bodies for preparation of skeletons that he sold for profit; his institution also prepared death masks and busts from the bodies of Jews. This was in preparation for an intended museum of an extinct race. The Vienna Museum of National History owns these skeletons along with skulls of Jews and non- Jewish Poles displayed in the Race Gallery. Voss authored a textbook of anatomy after the war, which so far appears in 17 German language editions and was translated to Spanish and Polish. [Seidelman. Medicine and Murder]

Johann Kremer, a senior anatomist and SS officer at the University of Münster. His research centered on the effects of hunger in animals. At Auschwitz he seized the opportunity to substitute humans in advanced stages of starvation for animals. He selected them, had them photographed, often witnessed their murder with a phenol injection, whereupon he extracted tissue samples from their liver, spleen, and pancreas; put them in preservative fluid. When he left Auschwitz he took the photographs and samples back to the university. Kremer selected 10,717 prisoners for death upon their arrival at Auschwitz. In 1948, he was sentenced to death in Poland; served 10 years, then released and returned to Münster.

Between 1943 and1944, Dr. Otmar von Verschuer, Director of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology received funds to conduct an anatomical analysis of twins who were being held in concentration camps. The experiments required large volumes of blood from the twins. This work was coordinated with his first assistant, Josef Mengele, MD, PhD, who supplied Verschuer with “scientific materials” accompanied by reports of his ghastly experiments at Auschwitz. These “materials” included: blood samples from twins infected by Mengele with typhus; body parts of murdered children—arms and legs; internal organs, eyes; skeletons of murdered Jews and gypsies. (Seidelman. Science and Inhumanity)

Verschuer escaped prosecution though an investigation by a commission of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute found that he had engaged in…. During the war, Verschuer was accepted as a member of the American Eugenics Society, and after the war he re-connected with American eugenicists. In July 1946 he received a letter from Dr. Paul Popenoe, author of the textbook, “Applied Eugenics” (1918) expressing concern: “I have been very anxious about my colleagues in Germany…I suppose sterilization has been discontinued in Germany.” (Black. War Against the Weak, 2003)

After eugenics was declared a crime against humanity, eugenicists reconfigured eugenics as “human genetics.” Verschauer’s record was completely whitewashed; whereupon he became a respected scientist in Germany and around the world. In 1950, he was awarded a professorship of genetics at the University of Münster where he established one of West Germany’s largest genetics research centers. Verschuer became an honorary member of numerous prestigious societies, including the Italian Society of Genetics, the Anthropological Society of Vienna, and the Japanese Society for Human Genetics. Obituaries in the German scientific journals made no mention of his Nazi activities.

A surviving Mengele twin, Moshe Offer, later recalled the death of his twin brother:

“Dr. Mengele had always been more interested in Tibi. I am not sure why – perhaps because he was the older twin. Mengele made several operations on Tibi. One surgery on his spine left my brother paralyzed. He could not walk anymore. Then they took out his sexual organs. After the fourth operation, I did not see Tibi anymore. I cannot tell you how I felt. It is impossible to put into words how I felt. They had taken away my father, my mother, my two older brothers – and now, my twin.” (Lucette Lagnado and Sheila Dekel. Children of the Flames…1991, p. 71)

The Dwarfs of Auschwitz: Josef Mengele’s Ovitz Lilliput Troupe
Very, very few people who were deported to Auschwitz survived. Yet, all 12 members of the Ovitz family survived – the youngest was a baby boy just 18 months old, the oldest his 58-year-old aunt. Their miraculous survival was due to “Dr. Death,” Dr. Josef Mengele for whom their dwarfism and the family’s mixed normal stature posed an intriguing genetic puzzle. (Giants: The Dwarfs of Auschwitz (2013) an expanded version of their earlier book, In Our Hearts We Were Giants (2004)

The Ovitz Lilliput Troupe was a Jewish Romanian family: seven dwarfs—five sisters and two brothers – each no taller than a five year old; and five family members of normal height. They were musical performers, who traveled the countryside of Transylvania and Eastern Europe from 1931 to May, 1944. In May 1944, they were captured and deported from Hungary in cattle cars to Auschwitz. Like most of the Hungarian Jews who arrived, they had no idea that this was an extermination camp.

Although the Ovitz dwarfs were described in survivors’ memoirs, including the memoir of one of the sisters, Elizabeth Ovitz whose memoir, By the Grace of the Satan, published in 1987, the authenticated story did not come to light until Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev interviewed at length Perla Ovitz – the youngest and last surviving Ovitz dwarf who died in 2001 – they then corroborated and corrected inaccurate witnesses’ memories; and they located medical documents signed by Josef Mengele. Their book, Giants: The Dwarfs Of Auschwitz (2013) is an authenticated researched account of the Ovitz family’s extraordinary survival (Excerpts in The Daily Mail and The Guardian 2013)

One of the recollections that Perla recounted was that when she first saw the chimneys of the Auschwitz she thought the ovens were a bakery. When informed by a prisoner that the blazing chimneys were burning human beings. “We went numb, then started thinking about the unknown man we were waiting for — if this was a graveyard, then what was a doctor doing here?”

Within three hours of their arrival most of the other passengers — 3,100 out of 3,500 — had been exterminated. But by a twist of fate, their disability was of enormous scientific interest to Dr. Mengele who was awakened at midnight and informed about the arrival of a family of seven dwarfs.

Although Mengele had two doctorates, in his research on twins, he served as a subordinate field worker for Professor Otmar von Verschuer, MD, at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. Mengele had several hundred twins at his disposal, and he carried out notoriously inhuman experiments on them that led to countless deaths. But Mengele aspired to conducting important genetic research that might one day lead to his own professorship. Like numerous Nazi doctors, he felt no compunction about torturing, maiming and often killing his unlimited supply of human specimens. One of his first jobs at Auschwitz was to deal with a typhus epidemic in the female camp. He solved the problem by sending an entire barrack of 498 women to the gas chamber. It was also his idea to kill families of gypsies for the sake of their eyeballs, which were extracted for research.

Mengele was looking for a research niche of his own; he found it in dwarfism. His aim was not only to discover the biological and pathological causes of the birth of dwarfs, but to demonstrate the racial theory that in the course of its long history, the Jewish race had degenerated into a people of dwarves and cripples. Upon seeing them, he exclaimed “Now I have twenty years of material to study.”

Since he had only one family of dwarfs, he was careful not to put the lives of his precious guinea pigs at risk. He gave them special living quarters; unlike the other prisoners, their hair was not shorn, because he needed it for his experiments; and they were allowed to wear their own clothes, because prisoners’ uniforms did not fit their bodies. The Ovitzes realized that though it was no guarantee, their survival depended on staying on Menegele’s good side. This meant pleasing the master by singing German songs to him and amusing him with jokes.

The laboratory at Auschwitz looked like any ordinary clinic, with a staff in white coats. At first, all they seemed to want of the dwarfs was enormous quantities of blood samples repeated week after week, along with dozens of X-rays.

“Members of the Ovitz group described to us in detail the painful blood-taking that they underwent. Often they fainted and water was poured over them to revive them, only for siphoning their blood to resume. Medical science of the time was obsessed with blood and its constituents, and it was generally believed that plasma contained all genetic traits. But only the medical records, all bearing Mengele’s flamboyant signature, clarified what he was looking for: signs of kidney problems, liver function, typhus and syphilis.

Written accounts of inmate doctors shed further light on the endless anthropological measurements and comparisons between the Ovitzs and their neighbors, whom Mengele mistook for family. The doctors extracted bone marrow, pulled out healthy teeth, plucked hair and eyelashes, and carried out psychological and gynaecological tests on them all.”

The four married female dwarves were subjected to close gynaecological scrutiny. The teenage girls in the group were terrified by the next phase in the experiment: that Mengele would couple them with the dwarf men and turn their wombs into laboratories, to see what offspring would result. Mengele was known to have done it to other experimental subjects.”

Psychiatrists bombarded the dwarfs with questions to test their intelligence; doctors repeatedly tested them for syphilis; and boiling water, quickly followed by freezing water, was poured into their ears. According to Perla, this water torture was excruciatingly painful and nearly drove them crazy.” (Excerpt “The Dwarfs of Auschwitz” in The Daily Mail, March 23, 2013)

In her memoir, Elizabeth Ovitz describes the gynecological experiments:

“The most frightful experiments of all were the gynaecological experiments. They tied us to the table and the systematic torture began. They injected things into our uterus, extracted blood, dug into us, pierced us and removed samples. It is impossible to put into words the intolerable pain that we suffered, which continued for many days after the experiments ceased.”  

‘They extracted fluid from our spinal. The hair extraction began again and when we were ready to collapse, they began painful tests on the brain, nose, mouth, and hand region. All stages were fully documented with illustrations. It may be noted, ironically, that we were among the only ones in the world whose torture was premeditated and ‘scientifically’ documented for the sake of future generations.” (Excerpt in  The Ovitz Family-Nazi Experiments, Human Marvels)

Indeed, the gynecological experiments were so severe that the doctors assisting in the procedures warned of the possibility that the female dwarfs would not be able to survive further invasive procedures. Mengele relented as he did not want to risk the lives of his favorite lab rats. He created a film starring the Ovitz family for Adolf Hitler’s amusement. He invited them to a special event he had organized for an audience of high ranking SS officers. They prepared songs to entertain the guests; but the occasion was designed to shame and humiliate them.

Mengele, accompanied on the stage by the Ovitz dwarfs, delivered a lecture about his work entitled: “Examples of Anthropological and Hereditary Biology in the Concentration Camp.” Suddenly he  ordered the dwarfs to strip naked.

“To illustrate his points, he poked the trembling dwarfs with a billiard cue, indicating the site of each of their internal organs. His purpose was to show the Jewish race had degenerated into a people of dwarfs and cripples, but as he had no concrete findings, he was relying on the naked Lilliputs to give his speech some impact. When he’d finished, the audience rose to applaud and a swarm of SS officers climbed on to the stage to prod at the naked troupe.”

The Ovitzes’ worst fear was suffering the fate of two male dwarfs — a hunchback and his son —who had arrived three months after them. Mengele had ordered his staff to boil their bodies over a fire until the flesh separated from the bones so that he could send their skeletons to a museum in Berlin. He had another dwarf killed for his skeleton as well; this man was dropped into a bath of acid. Perla told Koren and Negev: “We’d reconciled ourselves to the thought we wouldn’t walk out from the camp. But the notion that our skeletons would be exhibited in Berlin was ghastly beyond words.”

Ovitz Dwarfs

Ovitz Dwarfs

Mengele continued to protect his research specimens. After another Auschwitz doctor who was jealous of Mengele’ accomplishments, ‘selected’ two of the dwarfs for execution behind his back, but Mengele rescued them. And when the time came for everyone in their part of the camp to be gassed; Mengele saved them by moving them to a different section. Mengele escaped to South America to avoid prosecution as a war criminal.

The German medical profession did all it could to cover up its enthusiastic, voluntary leading role in the design and implementation of Nazi policies of eugenics, euthanasia, and genocidal extermination that resulted in approximately 11 million murdered victims of the Holocaust: 6 million were Jews; others include, mentally disabled Germans, Roma Gypsies, Jehovah Witnesses, Slavic people, Homosexuals, Interracial couples and their offspring, resisters, non-conformists.